Can this trip be saved? Stranded 12 hours on the tarmac after earthquake

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By Christopher Elliott

Not all of the survivor stories coming out of Japan in the wake of the tragic earthquake involve tsunamis or exploding nuclear reactors.

Jiyong Kim, who was on his way from New York to Seoul via Tokyo on Delta Air Lines, endured a ridiculously long tarmac delay. He wants to know if he’s entitled to anything for having to spend an extra 12 hours sitting on the ground in Hokkaido.

I’ll get to Kim’s story in a moment. But first, let’s talk rules. The Transportation Department’s tarmac delay regulation wouldn’t apply to a US carrier operating in Japan. Also, under Delta’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between Kim and the airline — an earthquake would be considered a force majeure event, which means technically, the company isn’t responsible. (Here are your rights during a tarmac delay.)

Kim was on his way to Korea to visit his father, who has stage four lung cancer. He was scheduled for a stopover in Tokyo before continuing to Seoul, but because of the earthquake, Kim’s flight was diverted to Hokkaido.

Delta doesn’t fly to Hokkaido.

The airport ignored Delta. We were sitting inside a locked airplane for 12 hours. Our last meal was served about 2:30 p.m. and we were locked, sitting in a jetway, until next day 5 in the morning.

We saw our airline carriers move in and out, having their passengers go in, when we did not even have Delta employee to open the gate for us.

Even if you were not a claustrophobic, after being locked in a airplane for more than 24 hours, especially in an helpless disaster enviornment, you would be panicking. Not to mention safety issues.

Although the delay was the worst of the ordeal, Kim’s situation didn’t immediately improve. After they deplaned, it was more of the same. No stores were open, so they couldn’t buy food. The airline didn’t update them on the status of their flights. (Related: Do people who leave their brains at home deserve to be ripped off?)

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Our family and friends called Delta back at home, and most of could not get through and even when they did get through, the answer from the customer service was simply, “We have no answer at this point.”

Can you imagine your family and friends worrying about you, stuck in a foreign country with an 8.9 earthquake disaster?

This earthquake story gets worse

There’s more. The airline lost Kim’s luggage. It sent him to a hotel halfway on the other side of the island. And he missed his next flight. When he had the audacity to complain, he got a lecture from a Delta representative, reminding him that they were doing their best to set things right after a major disaster.

Kim believes Delta should compensate him by offering a new ticket to Korea — this time in first class.

“I really believe I deserve this,” he says. “Nothing less.” (Related: Prime time shuttle stranded me at the airport. What happened to my refund?)

Trapped on a plane for 24 — that’s got to be the worst! I’m sure Delta did everything it could to help. (Here’s what you should do if your airline delays or cancels your flight.)

Should Delta compensate Kim for his diversion? Technically, no. Delta got him to his final destination, earthquake and all, and even sprung for a hotel room when it didn’t have to.

At the same time, Kim and the other passengers on the Tokyo flight endured an unconscionable delay, and they do indeed deserve something for their trouble. Don’t they?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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